Texas Law Specifically Allows People to Pray Away Communicable Diseases, But Not the Coronavirus

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) appeared on Monday’s edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight to suggest he would gladly sacrifice his life if it meant getting Americans back to work in spite of the deadly threat the COVID-19 coronavirus poses.

“I’m living smart, listening to the president, the CDC guidelines, like all people should,” Patrick said. “I’m not living in fear of COVID-19. What I’m living in fear of is what’s happening to this country. No one reached out to me and said to me, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren. If that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Now is a good time, we think, to discuss a rather unique Texas pandemic response law we uncovered while researching a multitude of state quarantine laws: Texas allows the sick to legally pray away their ailments.  However, there are exceptions.

Texas communicable disease law (more precisely, § 81.009) “does not . . . require the medical treatment of an individual who chooses treatment by prayer or spiritual means as part of the tenets and practices of a recognized church of which the individual is an adherent or member.” The law appears to have been part of the broader communicable disease law as of its inception in 1989, and it was likely a response to First Amendment religious freedom concerns over mandatory treatments.

But, the law is not steadfast: there are protections built into the law for the broader community. A person who chooses spiritual treatment “may be isolated or quarantined in an appropriate facility and shall obey the rules, orders, and instructions of the department or health authority while in isolation or quarantine.” That gives the government considerable power to protect public health while not forcing an individual to undergo treatment in violation of his or her religion. Plus, the religious exemption is not a get-out-of-all-modern-medical-treatments card: “[a]n exemption from medical treatment under this section does not apply during an emergency or an area quarantine or after the issuance by the governor of an executive order or a proclamation.”  In other words, using religion to evade medical treatments won’t work in situations like the Coronavirus pandemic, were the governor has declared a diaster and issued other executive orders (and the health commissioner has declared a health disaster).

The power of prayer has been debated in recent medical journals and in religious texts for thousands of years, but Texas law is basically a long-winded version of what Warden Samuel Norton said in the Shawshank Redemption:  “put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me.”

There are other interesting and unique provisions of Texas law as it applies to communicable diseases.

In “I should’ve been a cowboy . . . riding shotgun for the Texas Rangers” fashion, Texas law explicitly allows volunteers to be involved with “communicable disease prevention” efforts. “‘Emergency response employee or volunteer’ means an individual acting in the course and scope of employment or service as a volunteer as emergency medical service personnel, a peace officer, a detention officer, a county jailer, or a fire fighter.”

Texas makes it a crime to “knowingly conceal” from the authorities either having a communicable disease or even being exposed to one.  The penalty is up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.  Texas law also provides a stiff penalty for violating a public health order:  the punishment is a third-degree felony (that’s two to ten years in prison).  Texas law contains some of the harshest penalties among all fifty states in this area of law.  Our review of the laws of many other states is here.

Back to Lt. Gov. Patrick’s comments on Tucker Carlson Tonight: “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed, and that’s what I see . . . we’re having an economic collapse,” Patrick said. “We can do more than one thing at a time . . . my message is that, let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it. Those of us who are 70-plus can take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country, don’t do that, don’t ruin . . .”

A skeptical Carlson interrupted at that moment to clarify: “you’re basically saying that this disease could take your life, but that’s not the scariest thing to you; there’s something that would be worse than dying?”

“Yeah,” the lieutenant governor answered. “If I get sick, I’ll go and try to get better, but if I don’t, I don’t . . . we’ve got a choice here . . . we’re going to be in a total collapse; a recession, depression, collapse in our society if this goes on another several months; there won’t be any jobs to come back to for many people.”

“Our biggest gift we give to our country and our children and our grandchildren is the legacy of our country, and right now that is at risk . . . the mortality rate is so low, do we have to shut down the whole country for this?  I think we can get back to work,” Patrick said.  “These businesses can’t wait that long.”

“It’s worth whatever it takes to save the country,” Patrick concluded, with this final refrain from Carlson:  “I’m grateful you came on tonight; we needed to hear that perspective also.”

[Image via Fox News/screengrab]

Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University.  He is the anchor and executive producer of The Daily Debrief on the Law&Crime Network.  The broadcast is a recap of the day's most compelling trials and court proceedings.  DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only.  You should not rely on it for legal advice.  Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.  This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.  Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.

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